Laughing with Santa

 Okay, okay, I know that Christmas is about other things than presents, eh? Let me think… Well, when I was a child, I remember there were the religious issues my parents claimed I should be celebrating, although in those days they seemed more interested in the Queen’s annual Christmas Day radio broadcast; there was the annual drive around town looking for a Christmas tree that wouldn’t start shedding needles before we’d finished the turkey; and I suppose, too, there was the constant glut of Christmas carols playing in some of the stores as soon as Halloween decorations were taken down.  

But really, for a child growing up in post-diluvian Winnipeg, it was all about Santa Claus and whether he would finally bring the things I’d asked for. I mean I’d never ask for a sweater, or new socks; I’d never think of asking for replacement mitts, or a bright blue toque with a stupid red tassel on top so I could find it again after the snowball fights in the field across from the school. Come on, eh? No, Santa was my only hope in those days.

My parents were (nominally) United Churchers and I, under some obscure ownership clause, was included in the flock. I mention this only to bemoan the fact that, unlike some of my mother’s more intensely Catholic friends, Riverview United Church did not feel the need to pad their ranks with workers like Saint Jude who had apparently already signed a contract with a Catholic firm across the river to deal with their hopeless causes.

Santa, on the other hand, was non-denominational and dealt mainly with the possible. Hope sprang eternal with the  idea of a jolly, obese man with twinkling eyes who toiled away on gifts for nice boys and girls; he was Hope embodied -assuming you’d not been naughty around the house, of course. His arrival each year seemed to require at least a perfunctory obedience of parental mandates, and -if you really needed that new sled- an enthusiastic performance at the kitchen sink after supper was almost a nightly requirement in December.

Still, even in those prepubescent days, I had my suspicions about Santa. I mean, was I really being watched and judged all the time? Even the United Church, was less intrusive with its followers as long as they sent their kids to Sunday School to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the adult service or take money from the collection plate that was always passed around just after the prayer and before the hymn.

But unlike the church, there were fake fat people dressed like Santa who also solicited money and probably pocketed it all. Their Ho-Ho-Ho’s always seemed insincere and at times, well, creepy. I mean, which one was really Santa, and did he legally have unfettered access to the secrets of my usually untidy bedroom closet? Was he actually permitted to search my sock drawers looking for contraband, when he could have just asked my mother…?

No, I didn’t trust him -or them, I guess. Anyway, I certainly didn’t fancy sitting on a fake one’s knee in Eaton’s or the The Bay downtown: their eyes never twinkled and their breaths smelled like tobacco. It just didn’t make sense having to hold your breath on a franchise outlet.

When I was really little, I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually wrote to Santa -okay, printed to Santa on some writing paper I’d borrowed from the Riverview Public School. I wanted a Roy Rogers cap pistol that I could stick in my belt so I could practice shooting at the mysterious things who made strange noises in the pipes of the furnace downstairs… or maybe they lived in the coal-chute -I can’t remember exactly. My mother was convinced that a cap gun was a one-way ticket to a borstal or something; my father figured it’d more likely be a reform school. But whatever, they didn’t sound as if they were going to let Santa come down the chimney with a cap gun anytime soon.

Undeterred, however, I remember that I was careful to print on top of the lines and dot all my eyes, and make sure my T’s each had two arms sticking out of their bodies up near their heads, so Santa wouldn’t think they were L’s or anything. It was special practice paper that had thick parallel horizontal lines on it, each about an inch apart, so the letters I printed wouldn’t stray down the page. My message was simple: Please may I have a toy cap pistol this Christmas, Santa? signed G. I debated whether or not to abbreviate Christmas to Xmas, but I wasn’t sure whether or not Santa was a Catholic or a United Churcher. My teacher had warned us that using Xmas was not a real word, and hinted that it was like using an insulting nickname for Jesus, so I opted for ‘Christmas’ just in case Santa was theologically fussy. Anyway, I figured he’d be okay with me using my nickname.

The one flaw in my scheme was that I didn’t have Santa’s address, or access to a stamp, so I merely borrowed one of my father’s envelopes, folded up my letter and slipped it inside. Then I wrote ‘SANTA’ in big crayoned letters on the front and put it in my pocket waiting for an opportunity to post it somewhere.

I wore my special Roy Rogers cowboy hat with the chin tie cinched tightly against the Winnipeg wind when Mom and Dad took me on the bus downtown a few days later to see Santa. I figured the hat would remind Santa of my need for a cap gun. Anyway, while we stood in a crowded Eaton’s store line waiting for Santa’s knee, I could see him sitting behind a curtain on his break. My parents started arguing about something so I wandered away, snuck behind the curtain and posted my envelope in his pocket. The Santa immediately stared at me and smiled.

“Nice hat,” he said, trying to be friendly. It was a cold, blustery Winnipeg day, and I suppose he wondered why I’d worn it. “I used to have one of those when I was a kid…” he continued, his voice hardly audible as the growing crowd in the line grew restless. “Is it a Roy Rogers hat?”

I nodded.

“He and Dale Evans were just starting out when I was young,” he added, as an older woman peeked around the curtain and signalled that it was time for him to start again. He attempted a desultory Ho-Ho-Ho, but she was gone before he really got going.

“Why do you laugh like that?” I asked. “I mean it’s not very convincing…”

He shrugged and rearranged the pillow under the front of his suit. “It’s hard to pretend you’re happy all the time, but it’s part of the job, eh?”

I nodded. “But why not laugh like normal people do?”

He stared at me for a moment. “Because I’m not supposed to be normal; I’m supposed to be Santa… or at least you kids think I am. I’m really just one of his helpers, though…”

I cocked my head, holding on to my Roy Roger’s hat; I felt quite adult when he confessed things like that. “Don’t even helpers laugh at jokes?”

“I’m not sure if we know many jokes…”

I thought about that for a moment, peeked around the curtain, and noticed that my parents were still arguing about the merits of Eaton’s versus The Bay. “I know a  Santa joke, I said: Who says Oh-Oh-Oh?” He shrugged. “Santa Clause walking backward… ” I was proud that I knew a joke, although I had no idea why it was supposed be funny.

He chuckled at that and nodded.

“Want another?” I remembered one that Peter had told me in the cloak room at school: “What did Santa Clause say when he returned home to the North Pole? There’s snow place like home… Get it?” Even I got that one.

Suddenly his eyes twinkled and he let out a belly laugh that jingled the bells on his uniform. When he recovered he asked me if I wanted to hear another Santa joke and I nodded. “What’s a cat’s favorite Christmas song?” he asked. “Here comes Santa claws!  Get it? Claws,” he said, pointing to his fingers and laughing.

I began to giggle and then we both started laughing; we were really enjoying ourselves. Actually, the laughter drew quite a crowd to the curtain -including my parents. The laughter was contagious and everybody started giggling and reaching for coins to pay for Santa’s knees when he came out to sit with their kids.

“See what real laughing does Santa?” I said as my parents led me away.

“I’ll remember that,” he said waving at my parents who figured they were free wander around the store to shop since I’d already had a visit with him behind the curtain. He was gone by the time we came back, but maybe his shift was over by then… Or maybe he just decided to go home and try out his new laugh.

He’d told me he was just a helper, but for some reason I think he was just kidding me; I’m pretty sure I’d actually met the real Santa Clause…

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